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Who Is More Popular Than This Congress?

As it turns out, just about everybody.

According to a recent Gallup poll, public approval ratings for the U.S. Congress have plummeted to an all-time record low of 11 percent. The Washington Post did a fascinating — but somewhat scary — compilation this week of some of the other people and things Americans have found to be at least as popular as the U.S. Congress.  It's a bit alarming to see so many things that most people find downright repugnant now surpass Congress in popularity, but given its performance of late, it comes as no surprise.

Here’s a short synopsis:  

  • Polygamy — At 11 percent approval among Americans, polygamy enjoys about the same level of popular support as today's Congress. That is a bit sobering.    
  • BP's handling of the Gulf oil spill — 13 percent approval in June 2010, in the aftermath of one of the worst environmental disasters in history.
  • Paris Hilton — 15 percent approval. Really? Who can explain such things? Perhaps if we had more coverage of Congress in the tabloids, that might boost their ratings at least this high (or perhaps not). 
  • Human Cloning — 17 percent of Americans support cloning of humans for scientific purposes. I suppose that's fine, as long as no one suggests cloning Members of Congress. That would be really bad.
  • George W. Bush at the low-point of his popularity — 23 percent approval, more than twice as high as Congress today, and that was in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, from which we are still trying to recover.
  • Richard Nixon's approval rating just before his resignation in 1974 — 24 percent approval, and that was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, which was enough to prompt a major reform campaign.
  • "Caning" to discipline teens — 36 percent support, in a poll taken not long after the 1994 controversy over the caning of an American teenager in Singapore. Hey, that gives me an idea: What if we "caned" Members of Congress every time they failed to produce a balanced budget, or insulted our intelligence with some ridiculous new policy?  Now we’re getting somewhere.

The one bright spot: Congress is more popular among Americans than one prominent world leader: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The South American dictator had only a 9 percent approval rating in 2007, two points lower than this Congress today. There, we finally found someone we like less.  I feel better, don’t you? 

Let's face it, when you reach the point where nine out of ten Americans are basically disgusted with your performance, and your approval ratings are less than half what Richard Nixon's were, it's time to ask some fundamental questions about what you're doing and how you're doing it. How much more of a wake-up call do you need? 

The reasons for this appalling level of contempt for Congress are pretty clear.  Partisan gridlock, ideological posturing and special interest pressures have driven the public will right out of the equation, and everyone knows it.  As a result, decisions become irrational and often lack common sense, or nothing gets done at all. When was the last time we actually passed a budget? 

It doesn't have to be this way.

The fact that Americans had higher regard for BP's handling of the Gulf oil spill than for the job Congress is doing handling the nation's affairs is a pretty sobering indictment, but Americans' perceptions are correct. The train is off the tracks, the chickens have come home to roost, Elvis has left the building.  You get the picture. We are a nation adrift, and we need strong corrective action.

Maybe it's time we started paying a lot more attention to the health of our democracy, the sorry state of our public discourse, the dysfunction of key institutions like the U.S. Congress, the news media, and our current approach to public engagement, and start doing something to fix it. As citizens of this country, that's our job.

What do you think would improve the workings of Congress and our political system in general? Let’s hear from you.

Michael Brown February 19, 2012 at 03:47 PM
The low popularity of Congress is only one symptom of a deeper problem. American do not believe that Congress is acting in their best interests. What actions it does seem capable of performing appear to benefit only a few. Here is what I believe most contributes to the problem: 1. The desperate need for money by Congressmen to win their next election. Nothing destroys integrity like the need for money. 2. The deep pockets of a few to provide that money in exchange for protecting or furthering their interests. 3. The failure of the press to actually provide comprehensive reporting on any subject but dolphins and adorable pets. They are so fearful of being called partisan and so singularly focused on entertainment that they have lost any credibility as journalists. They are incapable of identifying a developing ship wreck until the ship has sunk. 4. Hate radio, TV, newspapers, tabloids, websites have reduced discourse to name calling. It is easier to apply than reason; it is addictive as crack to the faithful; and, it is creating divisions within our society that are based on lies, innuendo, and fabrications. 5. Our failure as citizens to understand the issues, to recognize what is at stake, to accept that the opinions of others are important, and to hold their representatives accountable. Governance is not exciting. We can have the government we respect by becoming involved, understanding the issues, being mindful of others, and recognizing that we are one nation.
Eric S. February 20, 2012 at 04:18 PM
While this is fun to look at[0], I question any relevancy, for a few reasons. -- Congress as a whole is a nice scapegoat, just like blaming one party or another, even though they tend to vote very similarly when it comes down to things that aren't social wedge issues. That said, while Congress is generally unpopular, look at the approval ratings of any specific congress-person in their own district. I bet the average is a lot higher. Among most Americans, the feeling is essentially "Congress is useless, we should vote them all out! Except my guy, he's alright. But those other jerks. . ." And the people who tend to disagree with their representative/senator. . . compare that to whether or not they live in a state/district where the incumbent keeps getting re-elected. Some of that's gerrymandering, but I imagine in most cases, well, incumbents always do better unless they either really screw up, or only have a term or so under their belt and it's a bad year for their party. -- Is this all polled in the same way with similar demographic representation? Calling land lines to ask about congress and putting up web surveys to ask about social issues are going to yield very different results. I wonder about polls these days period. -- Polls are written/conducted to get the result the taker wants. Not the other way around. That's my 2 cents. [0] No, really, I got a chuckle. I promise. It was well written and amused me. Thanks for the amusement on a Monday.
Jeff Hawkins February 21, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Term Limits.......
Richard Parsons February 23, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Quick note: None of these were web surveys, which I agree, have absolutely no validity whatsoever. All were actual polls using random sampling, etc. Glad you enjoyed it!

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